SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, MEXICO — As one of seven indigenous representatives in the recently elected state Congress of Chiapas, Marcelino Gomez Nunez stands as an example of the progress that Mexico's 10 million Indians have made over recent years in jumping onto the national stage.
But as even Mr. Gomez himself is quick to point out, much of that progress is still cosmetic, or "ink on paper." What Mexico's Indians wonder is whether the new attention they are receiving will ever translate into a better life for a population that for five centuries has remained stuck at their country's bottom rung.
"We have some potentially important new agreements with the federal government on issues like autonomy, free determination of our own affairs, respect for customs, even access to media," says Gomez, a Tzotzil Indian - part of the Mayan people - and an economist.
"But in practice I'm not seeing any of the significant advances that should be following those accords," he adds. "I'm afraid there is still [official] reluctance."
All across Latin America, consciousness among indigenous peoples arose in
1992, with the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Europeans in the Americas. Since then, the movement that the still-reverberating anniversary has strengthened has taken on important national issues in various countries, from indigenous land rights in Brazil and agrarian reform in Ecuador, to antiprivatization demands in Bolivia.
But as interest in indigenous affairs has grown, so has a focus on Mexico, in part because it has the largest indigenous population by far of any Latin American country (although indigenous people make up a higher percent of the population in Bolivia and Guatemala). It was here, in the southern state of Chiapas, that the predominantly Mayan Zapatista National Liberation Army rose up against the government in 1994.
In from the fringes
The EZLN, the Spanish acronym for the rebel army, originally called for the overthrow of Mexico's government, and spoke little of indigenous issues. For its part, the government called the rebels violent "foreigners" who had nothing in common with Mexico's Indians.
But gradually the EZLN adopted indigenous rights as a way of addressing such larger national issues as democratization and economic reform, and the government accepted the Zapatistas as legitimate interlocutors in peace negotiations on indigenous rights, as well as other political and economic issues.
Perhaps the single most important achievement by Mexico's Indians since 1992 is the recognition that their demands are legitimate and that they will only be ignored at Mexico's peril. The country's economic crash in the wake of the Chiapas uprising - along with other signs of political instability - was evidence of this.
At the same time, however, confusion and discord remain strong over how much Indian issues coincide with general national interests. Some say treating concerns raised by indigenous peoples as separate from the mainstream only helps to marginalize those concerns.
In February, the EZLN and government negotiators reached a first accord on indigenous rights. In subsequent months, Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon has lauded the concept of Indian autonomy, a first for a Mexican president.
Government-EZLN talks on democratization are set to begin again in July.
But some participants in the first round of talks acknowledge that the meaning of "autonomy" is still murky. And conflicts between Indian "traditions and customs" - officially recognized by the EZLN accords - and nationally guaranteed rights and responsibilities may be unavoidable.
"Some of these ideas remain very confused and could actually end up being counterproductive," says Juan Pedro Viqueira, a Chiapan historian who took part in the peace talks at the EZLN's invitation.
"One positive aspect is official recognition of Indian cultures' traditions of conciliation," he says. "On the other hand, does this constitute national acquiescence on traditional discrimination against women - in the inheritance of land, for example - or problems of religious intolerance, or even killings of supposed witches, which remains a problem in some communities?"
Mr. Viqueira says he was "surprised" that the Zapatistas took up the issue of traditions and customs. That they did, he says, indicates how influenced they have become by concepts "that play well in certain intellectual and political circles in Mexico City."
Yet some players in the negotiations say the gains from what amounts to a new respect for cultural diversity will be just as important for Mexico in general as for Indians.
"Ten years ago there was very little culture of human rights in Mexico. But that has changed with government emphasis and creation of new institutions," says Enrique Gonzalez Tiburcio, an area director in Mexico's National Indigenous Institute and a government representative in the Indian rights talks.
"In the same way we need to engender a tolerance and respect for difference in Mexico," he says.
"And government recognition of a plurality in customs or the right to learn and use one's language can promote that."
Despite this emphasis on cultural difference, however, a growing number of observers are accepting the argument that Mexico's Indians must confront the same issues as Mexicans in general if living conditions are to improve.
Democratization and the Mexican state's corruption are two examples. A more democratic political system could free Indians from the rule of local bosses, while opening new avenues of power to Mexicans in general. And cutting corruption could give Indians fairer and quicker access to land through a preexisting agrarian reform and distribute the country's wealth more fairly to all Mexicans.
"This is one point where the Zapatistas are right," Viqueira says. "The problem of the indigenous people of Chiapas is a national problem, and if certain national conditions don't change, then the condition of Chiapas Indians can't change either."